About 20 minutes before the end of The Kissing Booth 3, I realised that there’s no possible way I could determine whether it was better or worse than its predecessors. Even the films’ respective runtimes (the second one is over 2 hours long) are incomparable, as they all feel so much longer than they actually are. To watch The Kissing Booth trilogy is to stare into and be completely engulfed by a dark abyss where the construct of time is no longer relevant; where a 2-minute flash mob set to Walk the Moon’s ‘Shut Up and Dance’ feels like an eternity.
The trilogy is directed and written by Vince Marcello, an incredibly middle-aged man with an incredibly middle-aged way of making a teen rom-com (out-of-touch and creepy). Distributed by Netflix, the franchise’s maculate conception came from a 2012 Wattpad story written by a 15-year-old, which should tell you all you need to know.
On paper, these movies are indistinguishable from every other aggressively cheesy movie this genre has spat out in recent years. The series’ lead character, Elle Evans, has conventionally attractive high schooler problems: she has exactly one (1) dead parent and lives in a really nice house and goes to a posh private school, despite her family apparently being “poor”.
But what makes The Kissing Booth special is how it manifests teen rom-com tropes at their most unoriginal, baffling and ill-conceived. There’s no attempt at adding any novelty, like a cool app or a character’s abnormal height. It’s just the worst bits of the genre stapled together; a copy of a copy of a copy with no soul to be found. The Kissing Booth does not feel like a film series as much as it does one endless barrage of romanticised toxic behaviour, mind-numbing dialogue, and pop culture nuggets that, if they weren’t dated before, became dated the moment they were referenced.
If there’s any mark of progress to be found in The Kissing Booth 3, it’s that the gross over-sexualisation of its teenage lead isn’t as apparent as it was in the first film. With that ever-so-slight moral improvement, we’re left to fully comprehend just how detestable the main characters are. Elle’s personality-devoid BFF Lee and himbo (yet somehow Harvard student?) boyfriend Noah spend large chunks of the trilogy attempting to have her entire existence revolve around her relationship with them. The audience isn’t entirely sympathetic to Elle either, as one of 3’s many pointless subplots involves her being needlessly cruel to her widowed father’s new girlfriend, Linda.
I do not enjoy these movies. If it weren’t for my friend group’s quest to sit through every trashy Netflix rom-com under the sun, I might not have stuck it out. Even still, there is a certain magnetic quality to the series’ unique brand of awful; an inescapable black void at its core, masked by a blindingly bright colour palette.
There are certainly points which are unintentionally hilarious. In the opening montage of the first movie, Elle chirpily narrates scenes of her getting sneezed on mid-first kiss, intercut with shots of her dying mother in hospital. Moments like these are what boozy watch parties were designed for. But those are few and far between, and instead we’re usually left with sequences such as the ‘Mario Kart’ scene in 3, which is nothing short of soul-crushing. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why such a chipper sequence makes me so inexplicably suicidal, and yet that is precisely how I feel watching it.
In the final leg, the screenwriters realised that they had forgotten to give Elle any character development for three entire movies, and rush to resolve her arc in a way that isn’t defined by the men in her life. This includes her breaking up with Noah, though of course the film hints that their romance will be rekindled. In a sense, it would have been more accurate to the ethos of the series if they had her concretely end up with her shitty boyfriend and go to college with her shitty best friend and continue to be a shitty person to poor, sweet Linda. That probably would have been more commendable than momentarily pretending there’s any molecule of a soul in this series.